Forgotten southern insurgency divides Thailand

Forgotten southern insurgency divides Thailand

The political power struggle in Bangkok has dominated international reports from Thailand since the military coup seven years ago, yet a far more lethal conflict goes on in Thailand’s Deep South.

In four provinces on the border with Malaysia, a Malay-Muslim separatist movement has left almost 6,000 dead and many more injured since the insurgency intensified in 2004. Casualties among government security forces more than doubled to reach 129 deaths from 2012 to 2013, and there have been almost daily instances of bombings, drive-by shootings, assassinations of civilians and coordinated attacks on security installations.

The insurgency was initially fueled by political and nationalist grievances among the region’s 1.8 million ethnic Malays, who belonged to an independent sultanate before that area was annexed by Thailand a century ago. In recent years the unrest has taken on an increasingly religious character, with a main objective of creating an Islamic state in the majority-Muslim area.

It took the Thai government years to acknowledge the scale of the rebellion, and its response has often been heavy-handed and counterproductive, leading to incidents such as the infamous Tak Bai massacre when 78 demonstrators suffocated to death in police custody.

The Royal Thai Military eventually managed to launch an effective counter-insurgency strategy, helped by introducing martial law and a heavy militarization of the region. Yet, in recent years the insurgents have reorganized and emerged as an increasingly professional guerilla movement, led on by the main umbrella group Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (BRN). There has also been a marked change of tactics, with a shift toward attacking security forces by using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or ambushing patrols.

A more grotesque characteristic of the unrest is the systematic killings of civilians, with assassinations of both ethnic Malays accused of collaborating with the state, such as local village chiefs, and ethnic Thai Buddhists. Particularly Buddhist school teachers have been targeted, with more than 160 killed during the last 10 years. In a nation that largely identifies with Thai nationalism and the Buddhist religion, insurgents see the public school system as promoting Thai nationalism and the Thai language, and therefore consider it to be a key threat to their ethnic and religious uniqueness.

With Malaysia as a facilitator, the Thai government initiated negotiations with the BRN last February, yet little progress has been made so far. The government has been reluctant to accept BRN’s key demands, and the talks have also been delayed by attacks on government forces as well as by the political paralysis in Bangkok. The political elite in the capital are generally preoccupied with a power struggle of their own rather than the uprising in the remote south, but there have been national attempts at reconciliation with the Malay population in recent years.

The insurgency has had a “devastating consequence” on economic development in the four southern provinces. Southern Thailand is generally far more prosperous and industrially advanced than the agrarian north, but the border areas have been markedly lagging behind. Ethnic Malays are generally less wealthy and less educated than ethnic Thais in the south, which helps exaggerate political and religious grievances.

The instability has driven away investments and scared off the tourism industry, which is a huge economic powerhouse for the rest of Southern Thailand. Failure to find a solution to the unrest runs the risk of condemning the areas to further stagnation and missed growth opportunities as the violence continues. A more sinister effect could however also be a greater radicalization of insurgents and a growing hostility towards the Buddhist population, leading to an exodus of ethnic Thais and a serious depletion of human and economic capital in the region.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).